CLEVELAND — Nearly three decades after the United States first accused him of being a Nazi death camp guard, retired Ohio autoworker John Demjanjuk appeared in court Tuesday to fight deportation, with his lawyers arguing he would face torture if returned to his native Ukraine.
Demjanjuk lost his American citizenship in 2002 after a federal judge found that World War II documents proved he had worked as a guard at several camps in Poland.
Hunched in a wheelchair, the 85-year-old spent most of the hearing in U.S. District Court reviewing documents and listening to the proceedings with a Ukrainian translator. The frail, balding Demjanjuk moaned loudly several times; family members said he suffered from chronic back pain.
Department of Justice officials are seeking to deport him to Ukraine or Germany, where he lived before entering the United States in 1952. Prosecutor Stephen Paskey said Tuesday that Demjanjuk had not shown any proof that he would face harm if he were forced to leave the United States. "He has shown little more than a series of speculations of what might happen," Paskey said.
Defense attorney John H. Broadley, however, argued that "the U.S. government has marked Mr. Demjanjuk with a blood scent of Ivan the Terrible ... and wants to throw him into a shark tank.
"If Mr. Demjanjuk is sent to the Ukraine, he will likely be imprisoned and beaten."
Demjanjuk's citizenship first was revoked in 1981 after a four-year probe in which he was accused of being Ivan, the infamous Nazi guard. He was extradited to Israel, put on trial and sentenced to death for crimes against humanity.
But in 1993, the Israeli Supreme Court ruled that they had the wrong man.
Demjanjuk was freed and allowed to return to his family in the Cleveland suburb of Seven Hills. His citizenship was later reinstated.
He was tried again in 2001, with the Justice Department charging Demjanjuk had lied when filling out immigration paperwork in the '50s. Prosecutors submitted eyewitness accounts and documents that included a Nazi identification card and handwriting samples that allegedly showed Demjanjuk had been a guard at four Nazi camps in 1942 and 1943, including Sobibor in Poland.
In April 2004, an appeals court upheld the revoking of his citizenship.
Throughout the years, Demjanjuk has denied working as a guard at a concentration camp. He and his family declined to comment on the current proceedings.
But Ed Nishnic, a former son-in-law who is part of Demjanjuk's defense team, said Tuesday that "clearly, this is a painful situation for the family."
"This case has been dragged on far too long."
Rabbi Abraham Cooper, an associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, said of the case: "Justice has been delayed, but it will hopefully be served.... For him to be deported would be an appropriate closure that has been a long time coming."
Chief Immigration Judge Michael J. Creppy said he would issue a written decision within 30 days.